loader image
First Aid

The Aftershocks of Trauma

If trauma can be equated to an earthquake, then its multiple manifestations, most of which exert their effects on a person for the remainder of his life, can be considered its aftershocks. But what exactly is trauma?

1. Trauma Defined:

Trauma is an automatic response to the threat of safety or survival. It is an imprint on the brain, which results in its rewiring by means of its inherent neuroplasticity or ability to reconnect its millions of neurons.

The amygdala, the two almond-shaped nuclei located at the end of the hippocampus in the limbic system, serves as the brain’s “smoke detector,” continually scanning for imminent danger, even if that danger is only an approximation of a counter-survival or threatening incident experienced decades earlier. It receives and processes information far faster than the upper, neo-cortex portion does, and when it perceives even a hint of what has already been demonstrated as dangerous, it activates its fight-flight-freeze mode mechanism, generating high amounts of stress hormones that prime the central nervous system to react and prepare the person to take appropriate, survival-augmenting action. The danger can either be actual or perceived, present or just retriggered from the past. Primed and pumped, he becomes armed to combat or escape the threat with the aid of high oxygen intake, an elevated heart rate, and increased blood pressure.

While standard memoires can be jarred, traumas are retriggered, along with their physiological effects, and are stored as frozen, disconnected fragments, not interrelated associations that tell a particular story. That trigger can reach hairpin proportions.

A person may physically and intellectually move on, but, unless his trauma has been resolved and integrated, he remains forever emotionally attached to it. It creates a duality of present and past, as if he were forced to place one foot in each period.

Trauma results in a shift. It removes the person from the driver’s seat and reduces him to a passenger, harnessing extraordinary power to direct and derail his life, and transferring the debilitating effects amassed in the past into the present.

“To people reliving a trauma, nothing makes sense; they are trapped in a life-or-death situation, a state of paralyzing fear or blind rage,” according to Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Viking, 2014, p. 95). “Mind and body are consistently aroused, as if they are in imminent danger. They startle in response to the slightest noises and are frustrated by small irritations.”

During such retriggerings, the brain reacts exactly the way it did during the initial event, deluding the person into believing that the trauma is recurring at that very instant and that there has been no passage of time between the original and current incidents, since his dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, location of time registry, is deactivated.

With repeated retriggerings, which may result in almost chronic mental, physical, emotional, and physiological sensations, much of the world tends to be viewed and interpreted though the trauma, as if it were an extension of it. This results, needless to say, in the ultimate distortion of a person’s reality.

Immersed in the past, the mind attempts to defend itself against approximations in the present.

Traumas do not present themselves like stories with beginnings, middles, and endings. Instead, they only offer initially uninterpretable clues as to their origin in the form of flashbacks, isolated images, sounds, fragments, bodily sensations, nightmares, and snippets of disconnected desperation and fear.

“Dissociation is the essence of trauma,” according to Van der Kolk (Ibid, p. 66). “The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to (it) take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived. As long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself keep circulating, and the defensive movements and emotional responses keep getting replayed.”

Ignoring it causes it to heighten and create sensations that place the person in hyper drive, as if a tornado were raging within him, severing his control and creating a life of its own. Desperate to escape both the detriment, which he may not necessarily be able to identify, and the emotional storm within him, he may resort to any method of diminishing it, whether it be the actual fleeing actions it dictates or dulling and dousing it with alcohol and substances.

One of trauma’s conundrums is that the original experience results in non-registry of the event’s time; thus, when it is later retriggered, the person is unable to place it in chronological, differentiating perspective, by realizing, “This happened to me when I was five. Now I’m 50.” The part of the brain that is otherwise used during non-traumatic times remains blank.

This creates a dual-sided dilemma: the more a person’s trauma is retriggered, the more stuck in his past be becomes and the less alive and immersed in his present he feels. Without intervention, therapy, or twelve-step program participation, it becomes a gathering snowball. Indeed, the more it is triggered, the more power it exerts and the more it holds its unrelenting grip to the past. It hijacks and inundates the person, as it gains a life of its own and subjects him to secondary victimization-first when he experienced the original, life-threatening incident and secondarily when he experiences the deluge of stress hormones and exploding emotions.

This explains one of the adult child behavioral characteristics, which states that the person is a reactor, not an actor, since he instantaneously startles and stirs as his reactions straddle the time lapse between the age of his original trauma and his current one. It equally robs him of a significant portion of his life’s quality, because he will do anything to avoid the unbearable sensations he is subjected to avoid what sparks them, including adopt complete isolation.

A person, in essence, becomes struck in his fight or flight mode, as if a button on a computer had been depressed, but he is unable to disengage it.

“But traumatic experiences do leave traces… with dark secrets being imperceptibly passed down through generations,” according to Van der Kolk (Ibid, p. 1). “They also leave traces on our minds and bodies, on our capacity for joy and intimacy, and even on our biology and immune systems.”

Unless they are addressed and resolved, a person will most likely never be the same again.

2. Trauma Aftershocks:

Although traumas seem to subside after the threat has passed, they are not, despite what the person may believe, relegated to the “gone and forgotten” file. Indeed, like a pebble dropped into a pond, trauma causes a ripple effect, by impacting those exposed to it through war, rape, and abuse. Its retriggering is not only all-encompassing and controlling, but strips a person of present-time power, rendering him as helpless as he had been when the original incident had occurred.

“(Traumas lie) dormant, but not deactivated in the self-system, an emotional bomb waiting to explode, waiting for the right person or relationship to trigger (them),” according to Dr. Tian Dayton in Heartwounds: The Impact of Unresolved Trauma and Grief in Relationships (Health Communications, Inc., 1997, p. 39). “Once (they are) triggered, (they) get directed at whomever or whatever acted as the trigger, and for a moment the wound is given voice-not the right voice, perhaps, but the only voice in which it knows how to speak.”.

Its aftershocks are numerous and unrelenting.

The first of these is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Because the brain’s most fundamental purpose is to ensure any organism’s survival, a reminder of an earlier, unresolved trauma causes its primitive portion to trip its circuits and flood the body with a deluge of stress hormones so that it can once again prepare itself for fight or flight actions. Ironically, the threat does not necessarily have to be real. Re-experiencing an internally raging storm, the person is forced to act upon it or resort to whatever remedy he can find to douse it.

Suddenly and unexpectedly exposed to an actual or perceived life-threatening event or person, which evokes intense fear, horror, and helplessness, he is unable to protect or defend himself from, he experiences flashbacks, nightmares, and intensive and intrusive emotions. Although his original trauma may have occurred decades earlier and he was able to survive it, he never fully recovered from it, as memories continually recycled within his reorganized nervous system.

The more it is retriggered, the more automatic it becomes, until the person becomes stuck and mired in his brain’s replay. Although it continually reacts and wreaks havoc with its meso-cortex, or emotional, portion, it fails to inform the rational, pre-frontal cortex portion what the danger is-nor necessarily could it, since it mostly suspends its reasoning ability and overtakes it. It basically commands the person, “Do what I want and don’t think about it!”

Freud considered trauma survivors’ relentless re-enactments “compulsions to repeat.”

Although PTSD symptoms are equivalent to the turning on of a forceful hose to douse a burning building, its water continues to spew forth after the fire has been extinguished, unable to be stopped until it drowns the building itself. What begins as help ends as harm, and if the original threat does not hurt or kill a person, his unregulateable brain will, if only in nightmarish intensity.

The only remaining link between the original and retriggered trauma is the physiological sensations whose intensity the person has already experienced either originally or through repeated reactivations.

Another aftershock–and one of the adult child behavioral characteristics-is a detachment from others and the world. Perpetually believing that he is on the outside looking in, such a person is separated from others, despite what may be close physical proximity, because of his lack of trust and repressed fears. These consist of the bottled up detriments to which he was subjected, but from which he could not escape, along with the possibility of alcoholic toxins transferred to him and presently flowing, without his knowledge, through his blood.

“They are the dead wood of the repressed unconscious-numbness, unresolved anger, despair, and yearning,” according to Dayton (Ibid, p. xxi). “When the unconscious is asked to contain all of this in unacknowledged silence, there is little breathing space to allow for the lightness and serenity that are part of higher consciousness.”

Yet a third trauma aftershock may be the lack of an adequate parental role model. If a person’s parents grew up with the same unstable, chaotic, abusive, and alcoholic conditions they created for their offspring, they may have only been physically present. Prisoners, perhaps, to their own addictions and unresolved upbringings, they leave their children amiss to understand why, but nevertheless very abandoned.

Inconsistent and unreliable, they failed to nurture their offspring’s development, leaving them without proper parental role models to emulate or sources into whom they could plug themselves.

Self-image is created by the reflection a person’s parents project on to him, resulting in his internalization of their opinions, assessments, feelings, and thoughts. If, for example, a father says that “My son is a worthless nothing,” he will believe it. After all, the older, more mature adult certainly knows better,” he reasons.

Abuse in any of its emotional, mental, physical, or sexual forms results in a child’s loss of innocence and fails to breed the necessary trust with which he will subsequently be able to negotiate the world as an adult.

Wound-boring traumas result in sometimes cavernous-sized holes in people’s souls, leaving them to embark upon a search to fill them or stitch them up. Further complicating their dilemma is their belief that only a single person or solution can plug it, invariably causing them to fail.

However, they cannot look without to fill what they lack within. Their wounds require resolution, internal repair, and progressive return to wholeness, not a suture from an external source. The purchase of a new car, for instance, will only cause a temporary emotional rise or excitement about the item, but will quickly wear off and cause them to fall back into their lower state, as if they fold in on themselves.

Trauma survivors are prone to retriggering. Something as mundane as a facial expression of a person the survivor does not know results in present-time distortions subconsciously linked to past-time traumas. Amiss to explain or understand his internally volatile, overwhelming reactions, he becomes a bystander to them, sometimes unable to get to the center of them.

Like an exponential equation raised to the tenth power, his traumas will replay time and time again, accruing more energy and causing the person to sink into the quicksand of his past unless its roots are identified and pulled by means of desensitizing therapy or Higher Power dissolve.

Failure to do so results in internal shutdown and causes the person to function from defenses against detriments which do not necessarily exist in the present, re-generating the same interruption in the attachment bond that occurred during the original danger. Instead of attracting and connecting with others, he will only repel them.

Those who grew up with shame, belittlement, and abuse subconsciously consider others he interacts with later in life as “authority figures,” or those who serve as present-time parental representatives, who automatically rekindle his unresolved upbringing, causing him to cow, fear, deflate, and return to childhood helplessness, as he once again erects the defenses and employs the strategies he adopted at the time of their origination.

To a parent whose traumas are unresolved, his child serves as the trigger to them, forcing him to act them out on him, while the child himself, unable to understand or protect or flee from abuse, only concludes that his unworthiness and unloveability are the justifiable culprits for the detrimental behavior. Until and unless he himself takes corrective action as an adult, he will most likely perpetuate the chain, creating another link in the generational connection.

He had no choice.

“For many children it is safer to hate themselves than to risk their relationship with their caregivers by expressing anger or by running away,” Van der Kolk emphasizes (Op. Cit, p. 279). “As a result, abused children are likely to grow up believing that they are fundamentally unlovable; that was the only way their young minds could explain why they were treated so badly. They survive by denying, ignoring, and splitting off large chunks of reality.”

This type of upbringing results in the additional trauma aftershock of forcing the person to live a fear-based life. Dictated by his “childhood programming,” which subtly taught him to mistrust during the episodes of unpredictable betrayal and any number or combination of abuse forms, he is unable to build the foundation that others seem to have so effortlessly attained, leaving him forever hypervigilant for potential danger. He has been left with no choice but to set his protective radar very high.

In its extreme, it may relegate him to the abuser or authority figure side of the equation during times of particularly heightened fear, forcing him to project the overwhelming shame, anger, criticism, and blame, in an accusatory manner, on the person with whom he interacts.

This pain projection, yet another trauma aftershock, emanates from wounds that are too deep or raw to tolerate; thus, he shifts the burden to someone else. His trauma, in essence, is a rupture from reality, trust, faith, hope, and the positive perceptions of the self.

Unless it is healed, it will always be associated with the childhood-created interpretations he carries into adulthood and his logic, reasoning, and maturity cannot necessarily sever or counteract it.

If, for example, he concluded that his abuse had been the result of deserved punishment, even as an adult he will carry it over and always feel that he is inferior and still deserving of such treatment because of his intrinsically flawed, inadequate makeup.

Because his defenses were created to shield him from danger and foster some degree of harmony, he disconnects from his authentic feelings, which is yet another trauma aftershock.

Carried into adulthood, by which time they are little more than unquestioned parts of him, his defenses become integral to his personality and manifest themselves as subconsciously employed adult child survival traits that were created when his brain was forced to rewire itself to survive and cope in a volatile, unstable home environment.

One of the major trauma aftershocks is the adult child syndrome itself. As an incompletely developed, maturity-arrested child, the person entering life in such a debilitated state occupies an adult body, but is often reduced to early-life reactions and defenses.

The inability to experience or even contemplate healthy, meaningful intimacy is still another aftershock. Because trauma itself is an abrupt disconnection from another and reality, the sheer thought, albeit mostly on a subconscious level, retriggers elements of it, causing the person to repel it, emotionally shut down, or uncomfortably brave his way through it. But he cannot understand why he cannot fully relax and connect on a soul-to-soul level with another person.

Part of him craves it, while another part fears and rejects it. In the latter case, it is nothing more than the trauma’s replay in the depths of the person’s mind, warning, through ever-griping emotion, “You know what happened to you the first time you were forced into close, inextricable contact with your abuser!”

Traumas continually resurface. Since they have a power of their own, they cannot be avoided or reburied, and will always find ways to express themselves, such as in the form of nightmares or re-enactments. Those re-enactments can either occur within, sparking intense and, eventually, health-threatening physiological manifestations, or without, in animated, abuser-emulating actions.

The depths of repressed, unresolved traumas cannot be underestimated, reaching the cellular recording level, which enables them to unleash painful, physical sensations. Abusive upbringings result in adult relationships, which, according to Dr. Tian Dayton, “become minefields, triggering emotional explosions.” Adult stresses become catalysts to childhood replays, as if the person were once again returned to an early age in his life.

Re-threatened, the person may automatically re-employ his childhood defenses to “survive” the perceived threat.

The inability to effectively mourn losses is another major aftershock. Because he may have been forced to split off unwanted or intolerable thoughts and feelings, burying them in a part of the brain which lies beyond his consciousness, he cannot fully process and emotionalize them, leading to his incomplete grieving.

Another aftershock is the repetition compulsion. Beyond a person’s awareness is the fact that his brain repeats patterns and episodes so that it can finally understand, resolve, and work out what it was unable to during the initial traumatic incidents to which it was subjected.

Child abuse is, to a degree, the result of the brain’s attempt to finish out what was done to it on another.

Trauma, however, is more than just the recorded incidents, emotional sparks, and attempts to survive the threatened times of his life. Whatever is experienced in childhood becomes a brain-imprinted script, leaving the person to seek a later-in-life significant other or circumstance who or which most closely approximates the plot with which he is most familiar, despite the fact that it may by dysfunctional or even abusive one. This dynamic,, along with the brain’s need to finish out what it experienced, causes a person subjected to an alcoholic behavioral pattern to be attracted to a person who exhibits it as an adult, affording him the opportunity to “make it right this time” or fix in his mate what he believes he was called upon, but failed to do, with his dysfunctional parent or caregiver. It did not work then, however, nor will it work now.

The propensity for caretaking can be considered another trauma aftershock. Retriggered or trying to repress emotional pain, a person may ameliorate it by projecting it on to others and then providing care and comfort as an external attempt to sooth his own woes and wounds.

While a person may have a genuine need for meaningful relationships and intimacy, his boundary-crossing, enmeshing childhood has robbed him of any sense of self autonomy and identity, yet another trauma aftershock. Healthy relationships are predicated upon co-states, in which both members move into and out of at will. If a person’s childhood failed to model this dynamic, he will only subconsciously conceptualize intimacy as fusion, capture, loss of selfhood, and codependence. His defenses guard him against what he fears will be smothering, inextricable intertwine.

Other aftershock manifestations include compulsion, neurosis, codependency, and addictions. Trauma survivors harness normal actions, such as eating and working, in excessive, abnormal ways, enabling them to catch glimpses of their true selves and create a temporary state of calm. But they are both fleeting and self-perpetuating, resulting in actions that can detrimentally turn against the person, as occurs with excessive eating and drug or alcohol overdosing. Like band-aids, they may temporarily hide the wound, but they do nothing to heal it.

While abuse victims may exhibit addictions and compulsions that mental health professionals may consider problems to be solved, they may only end up targeting what the person once considered his very solutions. As the tip of the iceberg, they were only attempts at numbing and escaping from what fueled them.

Unfelt emotions, which have, in essence, been placed on hold until they are resolved, do not decay with time.

Another significant trauma aftershock is loss of trust in the person himself, since one of trauma’s manifestations is the inability to control or even predict its times of retrigger.

Emotionally numb and distant, he may only be physically present, separated by a thick, impenetrable wall, putting one foot ahead of the other, but seldom feeling a part of life in any meaningful way.

Disconnected, to a degree, from the present, he replays the traumas of his past, but superimposes them on current circumstances and people, often misinterpreting them and repelling them with protective defenses.

“It is especially challenging for traumatized people to discern when they are actually safe and to be able to activate their defenses when they are in danger,” Van der Kolk points out (Op. Cit., p. 85).

His internal world may be emotionally chaotic. If a person is stuck in his survival mode, even as an adult, he will most likely feel perpetually drained and exhausted, subjected to emotional and physiological reactions sparked by danger he cannot necessarily identify. His self-care and nurture needs may become sacrifices for it, since he may tend to neglect them.

While colleagues at his place of employment may focus on the tasks at hand throughout the day, he is only able to engage in superficial concentration, since a major portion of his brain continually scans the environment, like sweeps of radar, to gauge potential danger.

The brain’s trauma response mechanism may have worked for a person by increasing his survival chances during the initial incident, but they work against him when they are re-activated, especially for erroneous reasons, creating inner turmoil in which he becomes mired.

So inextricably tied to the fears generated by retriggered traumas can a person be, that he becomes the living example of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proclamation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

This creates a secondary aftershock. While those who are intimidated or out-and-out frightened reach out to others for connective support, solace, and safety, those who have been abused distrust them to provide these restorative interactions-and these “others” may ironically and frustratingly be the subconscious source of their trauma retriggers.

Trust in parents or primary caregivers, because of repeated betrayal, neglect, abandonment, or abuse, and the lack of regularity in which a child was able to get his needs met, only teaches him that people later in life will most likely follow suit.

“Children with histories of abuse and neglect learn that their terror, pleading, and crying do not register with their caregiver,” according to Van der Kolk (Ibid, p. 113). “Nothing they can do or say stops the beating or brings attention and help. In effect, they’re being conditioned to give up when they face challenges later in life.”

Fearing additional retribution and punishment, abuse victims remain silent and secretive, seldom sharing their fears and pain with others and allowing their rage to smolder, which, in adulthood, can create a myriad of physical, emotional, and psychological disorders.

“Children have no choice who their parents are… ” he continues (Ibid, p. 133. “(They) have no choice but to organize themselves to survive within the families they have. Unlike adults, they have no other authorities to turn to for help. Their parents are the authorities.”

Chronic exposure to trauma, as occurs in an abused child’s home environment, sparks continual retriggerings, which progressively close the gap between them until the calmer, safer times can no longer be accessed.

And later in life, those who remind them of them become the authority figures who retrigger them. Indeed, a mere frown from a stranger across the room may result in a trauma survivor’s unease and jitteriness, since this expression of disappointment or displeasure may have preceded his parent’s abuse. It serves as a displaced threat to him, igniting a chain of fear whose origin may be traceable to a childhood or even infantile age.

Faced with the daunting task of reversing such programming, adults in twelve-step programs first try to identify the origin of their misbeliefs.

“It’s time I started being nicer to myself,” according to one testimonial in Al-Anon’s text, Courage to Change (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1992, p. 89). “The voices in my head that tell me I’m not good enough do not speak the truth; they merely reflect the damaged self-esteem that results from living with alcoholism (and child abuse).”

3. Trauma Solutions

Although trauma sparks the temporary, survival-striving physiological responses of fight, flight, or freeze, and cannot be disarmed during their times of occurrence, they need to be reviewed, resolved, and reintegrated after they have served their purpose.

“Nobody can ‘treat’ a war or abuse, rape, molestation, or any other horrendous event, for that matter,” concludes Van der Kolk (Ibid, p. 203). “But what can be dealt with are the imprints of the trauma on body, mind, and soul… the fear of always losing control; always being on the alert for danger and rejection; the self-loathing, the nightmares, and flashbacks;; the fog that keeps you from staying on task and from engaging… in what you are doing; being unable to fully open your heart to another human being.”

While retriggered traumas are emotionally and psychologically flooding, these sensations can serve as dual-direction polarities. Like the person who jumps over a fence, he can either re-succumb to them, falling backwards, or use them to identify their origins, confronting, desensitizing, understanding, resolving, and reintegrating them and harassing the brain’s natural neuroplasticity in twelve-step programs and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapies, eliminating his distorted perception of others and life.

Article Sources

Courage to Change. Virginia Beach, Virginia: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1992.

Dayton, Tian. Heartwounds: The Impact of Unresolved Trauma and Grief on Relationships. Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc., 1997.

Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking, 2014.

Source by Robert Waldvogel

Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Check Also
Back to top button